The Step Back

The Toronto Raptors youth has a bright future


The Toronto Raptors made their choice this past summer — invest heavily in Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but not for too many years. Both are paid very well but their contracts expire concurrently in 2020, along with DeMar DeRozan (assuming he opts out to get one last big contract at age 30) and Jonas Valanciunas (assuming he opts in, since it would be a surprise if any team is willing to give him $17.6 million in 2019). This makes 2020 a logical stopping point for this era of the Raptors, the most successful in their history. For most teams, the end of a successful era would be followed by a down period, in which the team restocks its roster with high draft picks capable of being the next Lowry or DeRozan.

Fortunately, for the Raptors, they’re not most teams, and Masai Ujiri isn’t most general managers. Ujiri has used the scarce draft resources offered to consistent playoff teams to build a fleet of young players quite capable of stepping into larger roles, both as the Lowry-DeRozan era continues and into the future.

Delon Wright

Delon Wright was drafted in 2015 and by the end of his second season, the Raptors were so pleased with his progression that they opted to trade away incumbent backup point guard Cory Joseph to give the reins to Wright. He’s put the work in between years two and three to become a more efficient scorer — he’s mostly replaced his long 2s with 3s and while those 3s aren’t going in yet, the fact that he’s taking those 3s is a good sign for his long-term potential.

He’s been a terror around the rim from day one and this year has been no different; he’s getting 55 percent of his shots at the rim and hitting an absurd 75 percent of them. Those numbers are sure to regress somewhat as the season progresses, but not as much as one would expect for a backup point guard. He’s been in the 96th percentile or better in frequency of shots at the rim the last two years and has hit at least 56 percent of those shots each year. Wright’s also getting fouled at an elite rate for a combo guard and knocking down his foul shots after shooting in the mid-70s from the line last season. All of this combines for a true shooting percentage in a stratosphere only occupied by the best in the league — Wright ranks first among point guards who have played at least 250 minutes this season, just ahead of Stephen Curry.

On the other end of the floor, Wright is still a work in progress but is showing up well in some key metrics. His block rate and steal rate are both well above average for his position, but he doesn’t pay for his activity with a high foul rate, as many young guards do. He’s a solid rebounder given his role as well. Wright does get hung up on screens every now and then, but he does a good job fighting through them and getting back in front of his guy. It comes with the territory that a guard his size will get hit with screens a bit harder than his smaller counterparts, but he rarely gives up on the play after getting hit with a solid screen, which is good to see from an inexperienced player.

That size comes in handy when he gets switched onto a bigger player in the instances where he’s not able to get back to his original matchup. Wright does a good job following the Raptors’ game plan as well — watch below how he executes Weak coverage on James Harden to force the Rockets’ guard to his right hand.

When the screen from Clint Capela comes for Wright, he immediately jumps up to lock off Harden’s left hand, pushing him toward his weaker right hand. Harden takes the opening and drives right, but Wright and Ibaka are able to corral him and Harden coughs up the ball on a poor pass to the weak-side corner.

Wright knows his matchups, going under screens when he can to take advantage of poor shooters. He’s got a nifty spin move to get under screens and cut off drives:

When a guard goes under a big man’s screen, that big man can sometimes start his roll and trap the guard behind him, forcing a switch where the defense didn’t want one. Wright gets through the screen so quickly with that spin that Rudy Gobert doesn’t have a chance to trap him behind the roll and get an advantageous matchup for Utah.

It’s also worth noting that Donovan Mitchell hit this exact same shot the previous possession. Nevertheless, Wright doesn’t change his plan for dealing with Gobert’s screen, playing the percentages and sticking to the team’s game plan despite Mitchell’s previous success.

Wright stands 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, which helps him get his hands in passing lanes when he’s trailing the ball handler, deterring pocket passes that open up when the Toronto big men have to defend the ball while Wright gets back into position. Capable of guarding both guard positions and getting to the rim at will on offense, Wright has developed very nicely for Toronto as a backup point guard who may someday step into Lowry’s starting role.

Norman Powell

Ujiri acquired Norman Powell and O.G. Anunoby in the same transaction, when he fleeced the Milwaukee Bucks in a trade that included Powell’s rights and the pick that eventually became Anunoby in exchange for Greivis Vasquez, who played 23 games for Milwaukee and is now a free agent. Powell’s already put together enough production to warrant his max extension (four-years, $42 million), which will kick in next year. He’s struggling a bit from the field this season, though his shot profile looks good. His efficiency has fallen off each of the last two years as he’s taken on a larger and larger role, which is somewhat worrying, but the dip is almost entirely due to underperformance from beyond the arc, which is in theory easier to fix than finishing around the basket, which has stayed constant for Powell throughout his career.

Defensively, Powell’s 6-foot-10 wingspan might make him a good candidate to guard some of the league’s best wings, but his 6-foot-4 frame doesn’t quite allow him to bang with guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard. He can be somewhat slow to recognize what the offense is trying to do, especially when he’s off the ball, but he can make up for most of his mental mistakes with athleticism and that monstrous wingspan.

Powell’s reputation on both ends of the court is somewhat outsized as compared to his actual production, but there’s still good reason for the Raptors to have given him every dollar they possibly could in extension negotiations.

OG Anunoby

Anunoby, on the other hand, profiles as exactly the type of defender who can take on those larger wings. Standing about 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and weighing 232 pounds at the 2017 NBA Draft Combine, Anunoby has the physical tools to be a high-level wing stopper. The mental side is lagging behind a little bit, but that’s to be expected from a rookie just a handful of games into his career. He got his crack at Harden, as almost every Raptor did in Tuesday’s game against Houston, and there were certainly some mixed results. Multiple times in the first half, Anunoby failed to execute the Weak scheme and let Harden get to the middle of the floor with his left hand, where he’s at his best. Things improved in the second half and those sorts of inconsistencies will be ironed out as he continues to mature on the floor.

Offensively, Anunoby is and almost certainly will always be extremely limited. He looks incredibly awkward with the ball in his hands, especially if he has to dribble with his left hand. There’s very little chance he ever develops into a secondary creator unless there’s a complete transformation in his future. Still, he can be a useful offensive player as he is; he can knock down the corner 3 and drive past an overzealous closeout to finish at the rim, which should be all the Raptors will need him to do on that end of the floor. He showed off both skills against the Rockets, hitting six of his eight shots en route to 16 points and a game-best +22.

Pascal Siakam

Just as Ujiri hit on Wright’s draft pick in 2015, he did it again with Pascal Siakam the next year, choosing the big man out of New Mexico State with the 27th pick in 2016. He was presented as a big man but has shown enough versatility that he might be able to slide between both forward positions.

He’s extended his range a bit this year and has hit the corner 3 at a respectable percentage early in his sophomore season, but it’s hard to draw much from the statistics of a low-usage guy just 13 games into the season. Siakam doesn’t have the same defensive upside that Anunoby does, but he can certainly put the ball on the floor a lot better than Anunoby can. He’s impressive with either hand and comfortable making passes from the top of the key or executing dribble handoffs with the Raptors’ guards. As his 3-point shot develops, he’ll get more of a chance to show off that skill with the ball in his hands as defenders fly by him on closeouts. He’s already getting a few opportunities to get to the rim this year:

Almost all of Siakam’s shots either come from the corner or in the dunker role, but he’s active all over the floor, setting screens both on- and off-ball before settling into his sweet spots along the baseline. The sample is small for Siakam, but there are plenty of encouraging signs from him on both ends of the floor.

Jakob Poeltl

The only lottery pick of the bunch, Jakob Poeltl was acquired by Ujiri in the famous (or infamous, depending on your proximity to Madison Square Garden) Andrea Bargnani trade, which saw the Italian big man go to New York in exchange for a pu pu platter of role players, second-rounders, and the first-round pick that became Poeltl in 2016. Poeltl is a through and through center — he can’t shoot outside of about 10 feet and doesn’t try to, he’s relatively slow defensively but provides another big body the Raptors can put between opposing ball handlers and the rim, and he rebounds the hell out of the ball, especially on the offensive glass.

Poeltl, for all of his old-school big man tendencies, has shown an impressive range of passing out of the pick-and-roll, routinely reading the defense and finding the open man in the weak-side corner:

He sets good screens, he rolls hard to the basket, and he is capable of making good decisions when the ball finds him on the roll, all of which are important aspects of playing center in today’s NBA.

On defense, Poeltl’s nothing worth writing home about, but he’s fine in the role the Raptors ask him to play. He plays Valanciunas’s role with similar effectiveness — Toronto holds both of them deep in the paint on pick-and-roll, coaxing ball handlers into lightly-contested mid-range jump shots. It hasn’t quite come to fruition yet this season; teams are still getting to the rim at will against Toronto, but Poeltl executes the game plan set out before him by the coaching staff and uses his relatively limited athleticism well enough to deter layups at the rim. He’s quicker on the perimeter than Valanciunas, capable of sticking with a ball handler for a slide or two, which is all a team can ask for from a traditional center:

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is no great shakes as a ball handler, but it’s still good to see Poeltl stay with him on the drive and block his shot at the rim. He’s not a switch candidate by any means, but at least being able to defend ball handlers in emergency situations is an important skill for him to help alleviate some of the pressure on his perimeter teammates.

Ujiri has done a fantastic job building the core of the current Raptors, but always has kept an eye toward the future and what the team will look like for the next decade. Wright, Powell, Anunoby, Siakam, and Poeltl serve as the foundation for what Toronto will be for the foreseeable future, with additions from late in the draft sprinkled in throughout the years, as Ujiri will assuredly hit on another handful of picks between now and when the Lowry-DeRozan era comes to a close in a few years.

All statistics are courtesy of Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted.



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